Last night I was at a course for people who provide care for people with serious and incurable illness including those dying of these illnesses. The facilitator was making some very good points but at one point she said something quite jarring. She said "feelings can't be wrong."
In context, what she meant by that was "You can't be wrong about your own feelings." I didn't debate the point because what she wanted us to learn is that when a person in need of caring talks about their feelings you should let them and you should pay attention to what they say about those feelings. That's true. That said, you can be wrong about your feelings. You can determine that you feel cheated when you really feel threatened, for example.
It is also often maintained that feelings cannot be wrong in a logical sense. Whether or not Bill is actually being neglected, the argument will go, he can't be wrong about feeling neglected.
Part of the problem here is the vocabulary we use. If we take feelings as reporting facts about ourselves, then the notion of their being wrong seems crazy. But let's expand our vocabulary a bit. Feelings, very "real" feelings, can be inappropriate. Feelings can also be premature, unjustified, unrestrained, self-defeating.
As Elinor tries to convince Marianne (and Willoughby) to respect sense, she runs into the flip side of that problem. Because sense also does not tie neatly with binary notions of truth and falsehood. So when Elinor says that Colonel Brandon is esteemed by others, Willoughby can simply reply that those others—Mrs. Jennings and Lady Middleton—are boors. Why should he take their judgments seriously?
Marianne learns this lesson from him and when Elinor later tries convince Marianne that she has caused scandal by going to Allenham alone with Willoughby, Marianne uses the same response.
"If the impertinent remarks of Mrs. Jennings are to be the proof of impropriety in conduct, we are all offending every moment of our lives. I value not her censure any more than I should do her commendation. I am not sensible of having done anything wrong in walking over Mrs. Smith's grounds, or in seeing her house. They will one day be Mr. Willoughby's, and" -- --And what exactly? We all know what Marianne is assuming will happen.
In any case, her argument is interesting in two regards. First, she also takes it as a given that feelings cannot be wrong. She is not sensible of doing anything wrong, ergo she didn't do anything wrong.
Second, though, and maybe more significant here, Elinor does not have a slam dunk reply either. For, as Pilate might say, "What is sense?" It's not synonymous with truth in that truth can imply a moral significance. Nothing about Mrs. Jennings, however, inspires great moral awe and Marianne is well within her rights to refuse to take her judgments seriously. So far anyway.
What can Elinor say? Well here is what she does say:
"If they [meaning Allenham and its grounds] were one day to be your own, Marianne, you would not be justified in what you have done."Notice that the objective sense of what Elinor is saying is that the impropriety is sexual. If Marianne were engaged to Mr. Willoughby, it would still be wrong. We can't ignore sexuality here. It runs through everything that happens in this book.
And Marianne's reaction is fascinating.
She blushed at this hint; but it was even visibly gratifying to her; and after a ten minutes' interval of earnest thought, she came to her sister again, and said with great good humour, "Perhaps, Elinor, it was rather ill-judged in me to go to Allenham; but Mr. Willoughby wanted particularly to shew me the place; and it is a charming house I assure you. ...Elinor can get Marianne to recognize that she has done something wrong but she can't get Marianne to feel the wrongness of it. (Note also that feelings aren't private. We forget so easily but others can read what Marianne is feeling right off of her face. Even things that she is feeling in .. how to put this delicately...how about they can even read things she is feeling in an intimate way from her facial expressions.)
Suddenly it is beginning to look like sense and sensibility aren't opposites even though they are different things. We might even begin to wonder if they aren't a little like pitch and rhythm. To make music, you need both. Marianne is a lot like someone who has only listened to pop music all her life. She is aware, although not profoundly aware, of pitch and harmony but she only feels the rhythm. She hasn't developed any feeling for the rightness or wrongness of the notes she is striking.